by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
What at first appeared to be just a case of arson, quickly evolved into more sensational criminal activity that included attempted murder, a subsequent escape from jail, and a desperate fugitive, who became the subject of a Canada-wide police search. The case was made even more sensational when it was discovered that the man had been engaged in an affair with a younger woman, whom he convinced he would marry — the only complication to this promise was that the man was already married and was the father of four children.
The very sensationalism of the case ensured it would be extensively reported by the city’s newspapers, often garnering front page attention over the more than two months of its investigation and subsequent trial.
The basic facts of the case are that between one and two o’clock on the morning of April 13, 1895, the wife and children of William Farr, a Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) engineer, who operated a yard engine in Winnipeg, were awaken by the smell of a fire in progress (Reminiscences of a Raconteur, by George Henry Ham).
The April 13 Winnipeg Tribune reported that Farr’s home was at 486 Ross St. and a portion of a “seven house terrace and rather valuable property.”
Ham wrote that the family’s cries of alarm awoke T.C. Jones, of the CPR’s land department, then living in the adjoining house, and with him and the aid of her neighbours she was able to extinguish the fire.
The Tribune reported that it was Mrs. (Ellen) Farr, who “with great presence of mind ... threw water on the flames until she had succeeded in putting them out.”
The initial report was that Mr. Farr was on the job when the fire occurred.
“The greatest sensation in connection with the matter was, however, to follow,” according to the newspaper.
When Winnipeg Fire Chief William “Billy” Code arrived on the scene, he detected the smell of coal oil, which was then widely used for illumination, and sent for the police.
During his inspection of the fire scene, Code said “that coal oil had been scattered in the front of the building on the east side of the bay window and that this had been ignited with the assistance of a piece of old necktie which had also been saturated with coal oil” (Tribune, April 15).
He found coal oil was used for a second fire at the font door, which was ignited using a lit cocoa fibre mat, also doused in oil. A third fire inside the parlour door was started using an oil saturated sheepskin mat that was discovered to have been half consumed by the flames. A fourth fire in the back kitchen was started with the use of oil saturated rags.
Cole said that every exit that could be used to flee the flames in the building had been sprinkled with coal oil. In the drawing room, coal oil had been spilled on the window looking out onto the yard, as well as on the outside of the dinning room window.
A Tribune reporter asked Cole: “What is your opinion as to the chances of Mrs. Farr and her children escaping had the fire got a fair start?”
“I can hardly think it would have been possible for a woman with four children to escape from such a predicament, as every means of escape would have been in flames ...,” replied Cole.
“Any one of the four places ignited would have set the house on fire in a substantial manner if left alone for a short time?” asked the reporter.
“Oh, yes, any one of the places would have been sufficient for the intended purpose,” answered Cole.
At the scene of the crime, Sargeant Archie Munro, of the city police, found that a window leading into the kitchen was open, but the house’s doors were locked (Manitoba Free Press, April 15, 1985). On the outside of the open window there were several footprints “which would lead to the idea that the party or parties who fired the house entered or departed by the window.”
The police sargeant also determined that the can containing the coal oil “leaked slightly and wherever the guilty party went the drippings of oil marked his course.”
An April 15 Tribune article contained comments from Donald A. Ross, who had been putting through a transaction for a piece of property Farr had in Portage la Prairie.
Ross had no doubt that Farr was ‘insane.” He based his opinion on a series of meetings he had with Farr, who had called on Ross between 20 and 25 times over the past few weeks, during which Farr would spend a half hour to an hour on each occasion discussing points that showed there was something wrong with the man.
“In fact,” said Ross, “the whole of the business could have been done in a quarter of an hour and still he would bother around. I did not know what his occupation was at the time. However, he certainly seemed to be a harmless and good natured man.”
Upon investigation, the police found that Farr had some slack time from his CPR rail yard job at about one o’clock in the morning of April 13, which provided an opportunity for him to leave his engine.
“Did Farr leave his engine during the night?” asked a Free Press reporter when interviewing Police Chief McRae.
“He did,” was the reply.
“How long was he away from his engine?” asked the reporter.
“About an hour or an hour and a quarter.”
“Has he told you where he was during that time?’
The police chief’s reply was that he wasn’t at liberty at the time to answer the question.
Farr’s actions when the fire occurred would serve to throw suspicion upon himself.
“It is said that he (Farr) asked a policeman who was near Main street crossing where the fire was, and on being assured that there was not a fire he said he was certain he had heard the bell ring (April 15 Tribune). He is also reported to have told another party that the fire alarm was sounded for the neighbourhood in which he resided.”
An April 15 Free Press article stated that Farr encountered CPR night policeman Sherwood and city policeman Ross, asking them: “Where’s the fire?”
“What fire?” they both replied.
The two men said they had not heard a fire bell, so Farr jumped back on his engine and pulled out of the depot.
“Here comes into the story an important link,” according to the article, “said to be discovered by the police. It is alleged that when Farr got into the engine cab he remarked to his fireman (it was a steam engine):
“‘There’s a fire all right, and they say it’s at the corner of Ross and Isabel streets. That’s where I live.’
“‘Oh, well, you stand three chances to one,’ replied the stoker. ‘For there’s four corners.’
“‘No, those policemen said it was at my corner.’”
Farr then ran his engine into the rail yard and climbed atop a boxcar to see if he could get a look at the fire. He told the stoker that he was unable to see the fire.
During the investigation, the police were told that Farr was “of most respectable character, and that as he had a wife and four children in the house, it is impossible that even had he other motives he could not have been capable of such a deed.”
They argued that Farr may have had some insurance on his furniture (later revealed to be $1,000), but it didn’t cover the full value of the home’s contains.
It was the neighbours’ belief that the crime was perpetrated by a stranger, as Farr would have used a key to gain entry to the house and not enter through a window.
“Only circumstantial evidence was in possession of the police and they could not discover a motive for the dastardly deed by Farr,” wrote Ham.
But a detective investigating the crime told the Free Press (April 15): “In all my police experience I never found a chain of evidence so complete.”
Farr was arrested for attempted arson by Sargent Munro, who found the alleged arson still at work in the CPR rail yard.
According to Ham, a potential motive was provided by James Hooper, the city editor of the Daily Nor’Wester (Ham was then managing editor of the newspaper), who told Chief Code and Winnipeg Police Chief John McRae about Farr’s connection with a young woman. “He had attended church and theatres with her and had made her many costly presents of clothing and fur.”
Farr was taken to the city jail, where on the morning of April 15, at about 2 o’clock, he escaped custody, initiating a country-wide manhunt.
“How he managed to accomplish this (escape) so quietly as not to attract attention is a mystery to everyone,” reported the Tribune on the day of Farr’s escape.
What was known was that Farr had used the back of an ordinary low armchair to help him pry apart bars covering his cell window. This feat was accomplished by a man who “evidently” had “great muscular strength.”
Chief McRae described Farr as being 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-10 and weighing about 160 pounds.
Using “pure force,” Farr “succeeded in bending the (two) bars so that he could — no doubt with extreme bodily pain and difficulty — manage to squeeze himself through.”
Newspapers reported that the space between the two bars opened by Farr was a scant 10 inches across .
Once through the bars, it was said that Farr’s flight to freedom was relatively easy. He let himself down the 10 to 12 feet to the ground with a rope on which he had tied a number of knots. The cord he used was conveniently found attached to a transom onto which he climbed, lowered the knotted rope from and thus gained access to the ground.
A Free Press article on April 16 explained that the contents of Farr’s jail cell were a stretcher with blankets and other bed clothes, a long wooden stool, two or three discarded wooden coat racks and two heavy wooden chairs, one of which was broken to provide Farr with a means to pry the window bars apart. There were two entrances to the cell, one opening to the city police court room and the opening to the police office. The cell window, which was described as large, opened onto King Street.
McRae said there had been discussions about sending Farr to the provincial jail before his escape, but the authorities reasoned that he was “quite safe” where he was.
Making good his escape, Farr visited his wife at their home on Ross Avenue, which was just six blocks from the police station, bid her goodbye and then fled through a backdoor. Mrs. Farr later said that she had urged her husband to turn himself in — she told him escaping wasn’t the action of an innocent man — but her husband said that he couldn’t go back to the cells since he couldn’t bear confinement (Free Press). As well, Farr said he had to attend to something first and then would give himself up and establish his innocence.
“He seemed nearly crazy with the charge against him,” he was alleged to have told his wife, the Tribune reported.
Police claimed they were at the Farr house 10 minutes after becoming aware that the prisoner had escaped, but their was no sign of the fugitive. Actually, Farr’s absence from his cell was not discovered until about an hour after he escaped.
The speculation was that Farr had headed west, since a freight train loaded with rail ties had left in that direction.
The Free Press reported that Chief McRae interviewed a man who saw Farr enter the CPR rail yard, but lost sight of the fugitive in the darkness and the maze of freight cars.
In the aftermath of the escape, it was reported that hundreds of people visited the police station where Farr had been held. When a Tribune reporter talked to some of those present, he was struck by the universal belief that Farr was innocent of any crime.
“One man, who had worked with him for a considerable time, said he was a most agreeable fellow, and one of the ablest engineers on the road, being a deep reader and having thoroughly studied all points of his business. He is reported as having always been thrifty and sober, and as proof of this it is shown that he is possessed of valuable farm property at Portage, and he has city property at Brandon and Rat Portage (today’s Kenora). The general opinion seems to be that he will not be recaptured.”
Even his Ross Avenue neighbours believed that Farr was innocent. Jones, who had been awoken by the cries of Ellen Farr the morning of the arson, said it would be “an enormous contradiction” of his impression of the man to find out that he was guilty.
(Next week: part 2)